For four nights around the 8th of December each year, a number of artists showcase their talent by lighting up buildings, streets, squares and parks throughout the city of Lyon with spectacular displays. Originally a religious festival dating back to 1643, the Fête des lumières has embraced a secular approach while remaining respectful to its origins since the modern festival was launched in 1999. Today it is enjoyed and celebrated by those of all faiths and none. A uniquely Lyonnais experience, the Fête features over 40 light installations and attracts annual crowds of 3 to 4 million in a truly magical atmosphere.
Lyon saved from the plague
The story of the festival began in 1643 when, according to legend, Lyon was spared from the plague after the échevins (local politicians of the age) had promised to pay tribute to the Virgin Mary if she protected the city. Since that time, on the 8th December, i.e. the Feast of the Immaculate Conception, a solemn procession from Cathedrale Saint-Jean makes its way to the Basilica of Fourvière, overlooking the city, in order to light candles and make offerings in the name of the Virgin.
In 1852, a statue of the Virgin Mary was erected next to the Basilica. Originally unintended to be part of the 8th of December celebrations, the inauguration of the statue had been due to happen on the 8th of September, 1852, the feast day of the Nativity of the Virgin. This plan was scuppered by flooding of the Saône river which meant that the statue was not ready in time. It was therefore decided to postpone the date until the 8th of December.
As the 8th of December was already recognised as a celebration in honour of the Virgin Mary due to the events of 1643, a particularly large inauguration ceremony had been planned. On the morning of the big day, Lyon was struck by a severe storm and everything was hastily cancelled. Nonetheless, later in the day the skies cleared up quite dramatically and the Lyonnais, who had been eagerly anticipating the celebration, spontaneously placed lit candles in their windows, and descended into the streets to light flares that would illuminate the new statue and the Chapel of Notre-Dame-de-Fourvière, which would later be superseded by the Basilica. This celebration was repeated each year on the same date and soon became an annual event.
A roundly observed tradition mandates that families in Lyon keep a small collection of stained or clear glass in which lighted candles are placed on windowsills on the 8th December. This tradition, the lighting up of each window, is seen as the inspiration for the modern festival.
Out of the simple tradition of placing a lighted candle in the window, the modern festival was born in 1999. The Festival of Lights has grown into an international event renowned for its temporary light installations during which the city is transformed for four magical evenings. Lyon’s principal festival and key to its tourism industry, the Fête attracts up to 4 million visitors each year. As a winter festival, it has become somewhat associated with the mulled wine and roast chestnuts which are sold on almost every street corner for its duration. A cup of mulled wine (‘vin chaud’) is very much part of the experience!
The map of instillations changes from year to year, meaning that the festival remains a new experience each time even for life-long Lyonnais, however the highlights usually include the following locations:
- Place Bellecour
- Place des Terreaux
- Cathédrale Saint-Jean
- Parc de la Tête d’Or
- Basilica of Fourvière (NB The Basilica is perhaps best viewed from the Presqu’ile for the purposes of the Fetes des Lumieres)
- La Croix-Rousse
During recent editions of the Fête there have been 40 installations at various locations around the centre of the city. The best way to see the festival is on foot. Many of the streets of the Presqu’ile are temporarily pedestrianised for the duration of the festival. Additionally, it should be noted that public transport (metre, tramway and the TCL buses) is free each evening throughout the Fête des Lumières.
The precise dates of the festival change from year to year, but the key date is the 8th of December and the festival is always scheduled for four consecutive nights on and around that date. Evidently, this means that the festival falls in the middle of Lyon’s winter so wrap up warm!